This article was published originally on 5/9/2014
When selecting plants for the shade garden, don't overlook native woodland wildflowers. Woodland wildflowers are attractive additions to home landscapes and are easy to grow when given a favorable site. When purchasing plants for those shady areas in the landscape, consider the following woodland wildflowers.
Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is found throughout the state. It commonly grows on moist, rocky slopes. Wild columbine produces 1- to 2-inch-long, scarlet and yellow flowers. The flowers hang downward on long individual flower stalks. Plants bloom from April to July. Wild columbines grow approximately 2 feet tall.
Wild columbine tolerates a wide range of growing conditions. However, it performs best in moist, well-drained soils in partial shade. Wild columbine readily reseeds itself. It is best utilized in naturalized areas and woodland gardens.
The distinctive foliage and flower of Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is an attractive plant in the woods and in the garden. Each plant consists of one or two compound leaves (composed of three leaflets) which are borne on 12- to 18-inch-long petioles. The flower gives the plant its common name. Each flower consists of a club-like spadix ("Jack" or the preacher) and the leaf-like spathe (pulpit) which curves up and over the spadix. The spathe may be green, purple-brown, or striped. The flower is followed by a cluster of berries which turns shiny orange-red in the fall.
Jack-in-the-pulpit is typically found in moist woodland sites in Iowa. In the home landscape, its basic requirements are partial shade and a moist soil.
Goat's beard (Aruncus dioicus) is a large native plant that is often grown as an ornamental. Native populations are limited to several Iowa counties bordering the Mississippi River. Native plants in these counties are typically found in rocky, wooded slopes.
Goat's beard is not a plant for small gardens. Plants may grow 4 to 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Its pinnately compound leaves are 2 to 3 feet long. Dense spikes of creamy white flowers are produced in late spring/early summer.
Because of its large size, goat's beard is best used as a background plant or in the center of large beds. It prefers moist soils and partial shade.
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is found throughout the state. It commonly grows on moist, wooded slopes. Wild ginger often forms large colonies on the forest floor. Each plant usually consists of 2 kidney- or heart-shaped leaves. A single flower is borne close to the ground and is often covered by plant debris on the soil surface. The flower is bell-shaped and maroon to brown in color. Plants bloom in April or May.
The common name, wild ginger, refers to the spicy, ginger-like aroma produced when the leaves or rhizomes are crushed. In fact, early settlers used the rhizomes as a substitute for true ginger (Zingiber officinale).
Wild ginger prefers moist soils that contain large amounts of organic matter. Sites in partial to deep shade are best. Use wild ginger as a groundcover or edging plant.
Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a close relative of the old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis). Dutchman's breeches are found throughout the state in moist woodlands. Plants bloom in April and May. The common name, Dutchman's breeches, comes from the flower's resemblance to a pair of Dutch pantaloons. Four to ten, white, pant-shaped flowers hang upside down from an arching flower stalk. At the "beltline" of the pant-shaped flower is a small area of yellow. The gray-green to blue-green, fern-like foliage disappears by mid-summer.
Dutchman's breeches grows best in moist, woodland soils. It is best planted in patches in natural areas.
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) is native to moist woodlands. Flowers are borne in nodding clusters. Pinkish purple buds open into trumpet-shaped, light blue flowers. The plants, approximately 1 to 2 feet tall, die back to the ground by early summer.
Because of their ephemeral nature, Virginia bluebells are often planted between slower growing perennials or in small groups in the perennial border. They are excellent for natural areas.
Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) is found throughout the state. It often grows in large patches in moist woods. Plants are approximately 12 to 15 inches tall. Flowers are blue to lavender, occasionally white. Plants bloom in April and May.
Woodland phlox performs best in moist soils and partial shade. Plants can be placed in the front of the border or tucked between other shade tolerant perennials. They can also be planted in drifts in woodland areas. Several cultivars are available. 'Fuller's White' has creamy white flowers, while Phlox divaricata subsp. laphamii has deep blue flowers.
The graceful, arching stems of false Solomon's seal (Maianthemum racemosa) can be found throughout the state in cool, moist woodlands. The unbranched stems may be up to 4 feet long. False Solomon's seal produces creamy white flowers in fluffy clusters at the ends of stems in spring. After flowering, small, greenish berries develop that turn ruby red in late summer.
False Solomon's seal spreads slowly via thick underground rhizomes. It prefers shade and cool, moist soils. Plant several rhizomes (5 or more) in an area for greatest visual impact.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a member of the poppy family. Plants bloom in March and April. As the plant emerges in spring, a leaf is tightly coiled around the flower stalk. The single, white flower contains 8 to 10 petals. After the flower opens, the large, deeply lobed leaf unfurls. Below ground the plant produces thick, tuber-like roots. The common name, bloodroot, refers to the blood red sap which oozes from the root when cut or broken. Native Americans used the red sap to dye clothing and other articles.
Bloodroot grows best in moist, well-drained soils in partial to full shade. Plant bloodroot in small clumps or colonies in natural areas or as edging plants in shady borders.
Other possibilities include shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), May apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum), merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora), and others.